This weekend, the Ultimate Fighting Championship returns to pay-per-view at the Footprint Center in Phoenix, Arizona for a card that will be headlined by two championship bouts. Ironically, despite the two belts on the line and a card that looks like it will deliver quality action, this event isn’t quite as main stream as other pay-per-views with multiple championship bouts on the card.
Charles Oliveira will defend his lightweight title against dangerous striker, Justin Gaethje, an intriguing main event that should shape the direction of the division. During the heyday of the UFC’s surge in popularity in the mid-2000s, the 155 LBS division might’ve been the weight class with the most depth, with the counter argument being the completely stacked stacked 205 LBS division at the time. Clay Guida, who amazingly still competes after such an extensive career in the company, was featured in many of the opening fights on pay-per-views because it always got the show started with some fireworks. Diego Sanchez, Kenny Florian, and Anthony Pettis were also fixtures of the formula. Unfortunately, when Conor McGregor was shoehorned into the spot as double champion, belts that he never defended before he was forced to vacate them because he fought Floyd Mayweather for $100 million instead, the light weight division hasn’t been very disorganized. Khabib Nurmagomedov emerged as a dominate champion, but his retirement led to the title being vacated again and thus there aren’t nearly as many stars made based on championship victories. Don’t get me wrong, Oliveira, who is on a 10-fight win streak ahead of this title defense, is absolutely a quality fighter, but he’s not someone that you would automatically assume is a major draw on pay-per-view.
In many ways, Oliveira flew under the radar during the majority of his tenure in the UFC because while he competed in the company for over a decade before he won a title, he was always a contender. A few losses in the middle of his career might’ve hampered his chances at a title shot so that’s probably why he was in the promotion for ten years before he became a champion. He wasn’t a guy that skyrocketed to the top, but rather evolved over the course of his tenure to become one of the top fights in his weight class. Again, it might go under the radar, but Oliveira has a very compelling success story.
On the flip side, his opponent, Justin Gaethje made a splash in the UFC with his KO victories that made the rest of the division take notice. He defeated Michael Chandler via decision last November to put himself in line for a title shot, but I’d say that his best chance against Oliveira would be to try to finish the fight with strikes within three rounds. At 32 and 33 respectively, Olivera and Gaethje are in the theoretical prime of their careers, but the approach to the fight is much more simplistic than that. Gaethje is the striker, and while Oliveira can punch, the champion has the record for the most submission wins in UFC history so where the contest takes place will determine the winner. Gaethje challenged Khabib for the title in October 2020 and lost via submission so it goes without saying that the challenger has to keep the contest standing to have a realistic chance of winning the fight. This is why I think he has the best chance to win in the early rounds because if the champion gets the chance to grappler, I wouldn’t be surprised if Oliveira adds to his submission record. That being said, I have to pick Oliveira to get the win because he’s the more well-rounded fighter.
The co-main event will actually be a rematch from nearly eight years ago, as Rose Namajunas defends her Straw Weight title against Carla Esparza. Esparza won their initial bout in 2014, but considering how much these two have evolved as athletes, it’s doubtful the prior contest has any effect on the rematch. Rose is bringing a lot of momentum into UFC 274 after two stellar victories against the very talented Zhang Weili in her last two fights. Before that she defeated Jessica Andrade to avenge a previous loss and reclaim the championship. She also has a pair of victories over future Hall of Famer Joanna Jędrzejczyk, and a win against Michelle Waterson. Quite simply, when Rose Namajunas has her mind on the fight, there are very few athletes that could put her title reign in jeopardy. Esparza is on a five-fight win streak, but she hasn’t fought the level of competition as the champion so it makes sense that Rose is about a 2-to-1 favorite on most sports books. Anything can happen, which is what makes mixed martial arts so intriguing, but I have to pick Rose Namajunas to retain the championship.
Elsewhere on the card is Michael Chandler vs. Tony Ferguson and this might be a bout that determines the future of both athletes in the promotion. Chandler was known as one of the better fighters outside of the UFC and seemed to live up to the hype when he knocked out Dan Hooker in his UFC debut in January of last year. However, since that time, he went on a two-fight skid with losses to the previously mentioned Oliveira and Gaethje. Much of his momentum has faded and at 36, Chandler’s tenure in the company might be brief if he doesn’t reestablish himself as a contender. Tony Ferguson lost his last three fights and hasn’t competed in a year so if he’s going to keep himself relevant in the division, he has to get a decisive win at UFC 274. This might be a scenario where the wild fighting style and injuries finally took their toll on Ferguson because he isn’t nearly as competitive of a fighter as he was when he was in the championship conversation a few years ago. I will pick Chandler to get the win because I think the injuries put Ferguson past his prime, but that’s more of a guess than anything else.
What do you think? Comment below with your thoughts, opinions, feedback and anything else that was raised.
Until next week
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